What Is the Musical Saw or Singing Saw?

The lost folk tradition of making music with a carpenter's saw and a violin bow.

The Musical Saw was very popular in the beginning of the 20th century. The fact that a saw can "sing" was discovered both in Europe and in the U.S. at about the same time. The Musical Saw reached its heyday in vaudeville, and died with it around world war II. Apart from the disappearance of its main performance venue, additional reasons caused the disappearance of this art form: all steel was used for ammunition - therefore no saws were made for awhile. Also, young men went to war, so there was no one to learn the Musical Saw from the older generation.
As playing the Musical Saw requires a strong left hand, most sawyers are men. One well known lady Musical Saw player was actress Marlene Dietrich. She has played the saw at her performances for the soldiers during WWII, in a movie, on radio, and for friends at parties.

Listen to Marlene playing the saw on the radio:

Today, Natalia Paruz is reviving this unique art form, and her goal is to give the musical saw its rightful place as a genuine musical instrument. She is by no means the first to believe in the musical saw as an orchestral instrument: Aram Khachaturian wrote a solo for a musical saw in his 'Concerto for Piano & Orchestra' and contemporary composer George Crumb included the musical saw in his 'Ancient Voices of Children'.

The musical saw can be seen as a musical instrument in the French movie 'Delicatessen', in 'Swing Your Lady' with Ronald Reagan and Humphrey Bogart (1938) and briefly in 'Cabaret' with Liza Minelli. It can be heard on sound tracks of movies such as 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest', 'Masque of the Phantasm' and 'To Die For'.
Natalia Paruz revives this lost tradition, playing a 28" musical saw made of English steel. It has a range of two octaves and is considered a Tenor musical saw. She also plays a 30" musical saw which is considered a Baritone musical saw because its range (also two octaves) is lower. Her favorite saw is a 32-1/2" musical saw which has 3 octaves on it.

To see different types of saws manufactured for music making click here

All popular styles of music can be played on the musical saw. Natalia's repertoire includes classical music, tunes of American musicals and movies and pop songs. She has also played musical saw on several rock songs.

A presentation of the ethereal woman's voice like sound of the musical saw delights adults and children alike, and presents a visual as well as an audio experience. A refreshing revival of 'everything old is new again' good time fun.

The musical saw is only one of many different novelty musical instruments that Natalia Paruz plays. Presentations of 'Novelty Musical Instruments' are available both in concert form and in lecture-demonstration form. The music is accompanied by piano. When a pianist is not available a piano back-up tape is used. Performances are informal, entertaining and encourage audience involvement.

Can words describe the sound of the musical saw?

Aided by thee. Urania's heavenly art.
With finer raptures charms the feeling heart;
Th'Musical Saw* shall join the sacred choir.
Fresh transports kindle, and new joys inspire.
Hark! The soft warblings, sounding smooth and clear.
Strike with celestial ravishment the ear.
Conveying inward, as they sweetly roll.
A tide of melting music to the soul;
And sure, if aught of mortal moving strain
Can touch with joy the high angelic train.
'Tis this enchanting instrument of thine,
Which speaks in accents more than half divine!

John Dunlap, 1772
* Harmonica in the original
(Note: The Greek Muse Urania is the muse of astronomy)

How far back in history does the saw go?

Ancient Egyptian hand saws

One of the most common tools used by the ancient Egyptians was the saw. Craftsmen used saws for cutting wood into blocks or lengths.

This is an ancient Egyptian saw made of bronze (A metal made from mixing copper and tin), missing its wooden handle (which probably didn't survive the years).

Certainly flexible saws made of copper go back to Egyptian times. Or, if they were not flexible, at least they didn't have a stiff back. They were also shorter than today's saws.
The copper would have been hammer hardened and probably required very frequent resharpenings.
smaller, narrower keyholes saws of various sizes existed since then.
The standard handsaw starts showing up in one design or another in the mid-late 17th century and for the first time steel saws became fairly regularly available (at least in England).
By the mid 18th century in England the hand saw is almost fully mature - steel was expensive but available.
By the late 18th century Steel handsaws were the normal saw and by the early 19th century the shape has reached pretty much what it is today.

Thank you very much to Joel of the Museum of Woodworking Tools.

Biblical Referance to the hand saw

Isaiah Chapter 10 verse 15:

A 1866 Family Bible:
'Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith? Or shall the
saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?'

In more modern bibles the words vary slightly. A 1953 bible reads:
'Shall the axe vaunt itself over him who hews with it, or the
saw magnify itself against him who wields it?'

The original Hebrew:

This verse verifies that the saw was in common use at the time the Book of Isaiah was written.
The Book of Isaiah describes events taking place between the middle of the 8th century BC and the middle of the 6th century BC.

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